Strange Brew: Something for everyone

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book review P.N. Elrod Strange BrewStrange Brew by P.N. Elrod (ed)

The theme of Strange Brew is witchcraft. This anthology features nine well-known urban fantasy authors, each with their own spin on the theme. Some of these stories feature well-known characters. Others focus on characters who are secondary in the author’s series, or characters who are entirely new. Glancing at the table of contents and doing a little mental math, most of the stories are around 40 pages, give or take a few. (The longest is Karen Chance’s at just under 60.) As is always the case with anthologies, I had my favorites and my less-favorites, but if you like urban fantasy, there will probably be something here for you.

“Seeing Eye” by Patricia Briggs: A werewolf enlists the help of a blind witch to help him find his brother who has been kidnapped by a sinister coven. The witch has some history of her own with this group. Moving and bittersweet, with a hint of romance. I liked the explorations of good family relationships vs. bad ones, and healthy covens vs. cultlike ones.

“Last Call” by Jim Butcher: Harry Dresden goes to his favorite bar one night and finds a scene of chaos. Someone has put a spell on Mac’s beer, and Harry has to stop the culprit before anyone else can drink the tainted brew. This story had me in stitches. Any character who refers to a pretentious “dark arts” store as “Bad Juju-Mart” is cool by me. I’ve been meaning to read the Dresden Files for ages, and “Last Call” helped cement that desire.

“Death Warmed Over” by Rachel Caine: A resurrection witch has to raise a dead man to help the police with a dangerous assignment. Trouble is, she’s in love with him and doesn’t want him to suffer any further. This story is emotionally compelling in a sad sort of way, right up until the last page. The ending features a great big deus ex machina. I have no idea how this event occurred; there’s nothing in the story that suggests that it’s possible. It would have been better if it had been foreshadowed, or if the story had ended the way it looked like it was going to end.

“Vegas Odds” by Karen Chance: Starts with a bang. Lia de Croissets, who trains war mages for the Corps (a magical bureaucracy), is suddenly attacked in her home by a group of intruders. Karen Chance writes great action scenes, and this one is no exception. It’s fast, furious, and sometimes funny: “The bathtub ended the discussion by taking that moment to kamikaze the kitchen table.” After the battle, Lia must unravel the plot that led to the attack. It’s an interesting plot with lots of schemes and betrayals. I have to confess, though, that the opening fight scene was my favorite part.

“Hecate’s Golden Eye” by P.N. Elrod: Noir-inspired story featuring vampire Jack Fleming and “private agent” Charles Escott. They’ve been hired to recover a stolen, cursed jewel. The “witchcraft” element is more McGuffin than anything else, but the story is a lot of fun, and a nice change of style and setting from the other contributions.

“Bacon” by Charlaine Harris: Harris is, as always, great at characterization. Both of the main characters in this story (a vampire and a witch) are hard to like, but no one can say they’re not vivid. This is a twisted little tale of revenge. And the idea of Circe having a surviving grimoire, passed down through the generations, full of spells and gossip — well, that would have to be an interesting read!

“Signatures of the Dead” by Faith Hunter: Molly, a witch, teams up with her shapeshifting friend Jane Yellowrock to take on a nest of murderous vampires. Molly makes a lot of narrative observations about Jane’s personality and mannerisms, with the effect that Jane jumps off the page more strongly than Molly does. The writing is good, and Hunter has some refreshingly original ideas. Looking forward to Skinwalker.

“Ginger” by Caitlin Kittredge: Sunny, cousin of Luna the werewolf, is used to thinking of herself as a wimp. However, a situation arises in which she has to be the hero. I think this is a story where I’d have benefited from being more familiar with the Nocturne City universe, but it was fun watching the “weak” character get to kick some butt.

“Dark Sins” by Jenna Maclaine: An episode from the (undead) life of Cin Craven, set in Venice in 1818. For some reason, it never quite felt like 1818. Authors walk a fine line when setting stories in the past; the tone can’t be so modern that it throws the reader out of the story, and it can’t be so archaic that it’s unreadable. I felt like this was a little toward the too-modern side. I liked the Goddess intervention, involving a deity you might not expect in a vampire story. I’m always impressed when an author does something unique. On the other hand, it seemed like this intervention made Cin a little too powerful. I haven’t read the Cin Craven books, but a quick look at Maclaine’s website tells me that this story takes place between the first two novels in the series.

Overall, Strange Brew was enjoyable. It’s “fluff” reading for the most part, but sometimes that’s just what the doctor ordered. And the stories are short enough that you can squeeze one in when you don’t have time to immerse yourself in something longer. My favorite stories were “Seeing Eye,” which was the most emotionally engaging, and “Last Call,” which was the funniest, with an honorable mention to “Bacon,” which set a deliciously nasty mood by playing on some of the older, more sinister views of witches.

Strange Brew — (2009) Publisher: Today’s hottest urban fantasy authors come together in this delicious brew that crackles and boils over with tales of powerful witches and dark magic! In Charlaine Harris‘ ‘Bacon,’ a beautiful vampire joins forces with a witch from an ancient line to find out who killed her beloved husband. In ‘Seeing Eye’ by Patricia Briggs, a blind witch helps sexy werewolf Tom Franklin find his missing brother — and helps him in more ways than either of them ever suspected. And in Jim Butcher‘s ‘Last Call,’ wizard Harry Dresden takes on the darkest of dark powers — the ones who dare to mess with this favorite beer. For anyone who’s ever wondered what lies beyond the limits of reality, who’s imagined the secret spaces where witches wield fearsome magic, come and drink deep. Let yourself fall under the spell of this bewitching collection!

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KELLY LASITER, with us since July 2008, is a mild-mannered academic administrative assistant by day, but at night she rules over a private empire of tottering bookshelves. Kelly is most fond of fantasy set in a historical setting (a la Jo Graham) or in a setting that echoes a real historical period (a la George RR Martin and Jacqueline Carey). She also enjoys urban fantasy and its close cousin, paranormal romance, though she believes these subgenres’ recent burst in popularity has resulted in an excess of dreck. She is a sucker for pretty prose (she majored in English, after all) and mythological themes.

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